Is metro Birmingham condemned to mediocrity?

Let’s compare ourselves to Atlanta.

It sounds almost silly comparing Birmingham to Atlanta, but in 1950 Birmingham and Atlanta were about the same size.

  • Birmingham 326,037
  • Atlanta 331,314

Today’s populations are…

  • Birmingham 1,128,049
  • Atlanta 5,268,860

You almost have to see the numbers in writing to appreciate the stark reality.

I’m certainly not saying we want to be like Atlanta, but what the heck happened?

And how does our Birmingham metro compare to our peer Southern cities?

How about Charlotte?

In 1950, Birmingham had a much larger population than Charlotte.  Charlotte 197,052 vs. Birmingham 326,037.

Today’s populations are…

  • Charlotte 1,758,038
  • Birmingham 1,128,049

Here’s the population growth of other Southern metros between 2000 and 2010.

Raleigh          +41.8%

Austin            +37.3%

Orlando          +29.8%

Charlotte        +32.1%

Atlanta          +24%

Nashville         +21.2%

Jacksonville     +19.2%

Birmingham   +7.3%

(U.S. Metropolitan Areas)

I want to emphasize this is our metro area.  People generally tell me the City of Birmingham’s suffering, but our region’s doing just fine.  Not so much.

Birmingham’s centrally located in the South, is absolutely gorgeous, and has very smart, generous, like-able people.  Why have we performed so poorly?  Is there something in the water?

It has to be our segmented/dysfunctional government.  Not a single Southern city in the list above has to compete with 36 municipalities within their own county.  And not a single competing county’s finances are controlled by their State Legislature.

Isn’t it time to take control over our own destiny?

Let’s turn Birmingham around.

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David Sher is a partner in Buzz12 Marketing and co-CEO of AmSher Receivables Management. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (ONB), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).


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8 thoughts on “Is metro Birmingham condemned to mediocrity?”

  1. *David,

    I am with you on this, but what is the game plan?  Is there a game plan?  Where do we plug in to do something positive.

  2. There are many good things happening in Birmingham too! However, the good things seems to be overshadowed by problems relating to education, unemployment, access to health care, a poor transit system, and the unhealthy environment. These are both human rights and civil rights issue that we all should work on solving together. Will we see in our life-time a change in thought that promotes unity and racial harmony?  If this happens, the Birmingham Metro area will become known as the next great southern city and not for its racist past. Please visit

  3. David, I have a couple of issues with this analysis.  First, I question the implication that rapid population growth is the best metric for measuring the success of a metro area.  Some other metro areas (including most, but not all, of our southern peers) have grown a lot faster than Birmingham.  But does that mean they’re better places?  Or more successful?  Birmingham has grown modestly and consistently since the 1950 census.  Rapid population growth brings its own set of problems.

    Second, you’ve got a slight problem in your logic.  You hold Atlanta out as an example of success, then claim one major thing holding Birmingham back is our fragmented local government structure.  Sorry, that doesn’t quite follow.  Atlanta is way more fragmented in local government than Birmingham.  Their metro area includes 28 counties; ours has 7.  Atlanta proper contains 420,000 people, only 8% of the metro population.  Birmingham has 212,000, 19% of the metro area.

    I would love for Birmingham to have a unified metro government.  But we don’t, and it doesn’t look like we’re getting one anytime soon.  We should accept that, and move on to other issues.  Lack of a metro government doesn’t doom us to failure, or even to slow growth, as the example of Atlanta clearly shows.  I recently heard a talk by the CEO of Delta Airlines.  He claimed that Atlanta has been successful over the past few decades because “Atlanta has always been the most progressive Southern city.”  Food for thought.  Are we in Birmingham progressively trying to make things better here, despite whatever our disadvantages may be?  Or are we just complaining about our problems?

  4. *Will has some good points, but, in my view, metro Birmingham can stand considerably  more  progressiveness with little risk of  losing its “southern charm”. Example: a major improvement to HWY. 280 was shelved ,again, because the Mayors of some  bedroom communities claimed it’s design would not blend in with the trees. The design was recommended by ALDOT after years of professional planning and numerous changes  to satisfy local objections.Instead, Hwy. 280  will,now,  get traffic lights to reduce drive-time by several minutes – instead of a state-of-the-art  autobahn! This confirms David’s view that we have too many cooks in the kitchen – many with little regard for progressiveness.

  5. *Will, I always welcome your comments and appreciate your passion for our community.

    I absolutely am not advocating for a unified government.  That might or might not be right for Birmingham.  I’m only trying to encourage a conversation on better government for our region. That could possibly be something as simple as having a county mayor.  We don’t have a single elected official who represents our entire county.  It might be working towards home rule so we can hold our county commissioners accountable–which is denied by our State Constitution.  Again, I’m not advocating a single solution…I just think it’s time we consider our options.

    And I’m certainly not suggesting we want to be like Atlanta.  However, a metropolitan area, just like a business, must continue to grow.  If you don’t push for growth then you start to fall backwards. Being a business person, I know you can understand that.

    My son and many of my friend’s children and grandchildren have moved from Birmingham for economic opportunities elsewhere.  That hurts. That means we are separated from our grandchildren.

    We continue to lose our large companies.  A little more than ten years ago we had 30 public companies headquartered here–now we have 15.  We had six S&P 500 Companies–now we have one (Regions).

    I sat next to a fellow at Rotary today who told me he just got back from a business trip to Nashville and the Nashville business people talked down to him about Birmingham.  He said he was made to feel “small” because Nashville has attracted so many large companies and Birmingham has fallen down.

    It’s time we turn Birmingham around.

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